by Temitayo Olofinlua
“It’s a girl.” That sentence is the beginning of life, of a journey. Just like “It’s a boy.”
But the sojourners take different paths. Paths marked for them by the society. For the girl, it could be a life, not fully lived. A life lived in ignorance and cloaked in shame. Why? She carries a vagina—or even the entire reproductive parts that she has—between her legs. For the vagina is only a part; a path, a bridge to other paths.**
Just like many bridges, it is powerful. It has so much power many are unaware of—a delightful part of the phenomenal female body. Through it, everyone is born. Well except those who came via a caesarean section. Yet, the seed that formed you must have passed through there—through a penis or any other means. It has so much power. However, much of its power is seen only in sexual terms. And that is why many are afraid of it.
Diapers. Pink. Gowns. Hair ruffles. Earrings. Blade.
“E je ka d’abe fun.” For some girls, as soon as their lips can grab their mother’s nipple, as soon as their bright eyes roam the world wondering what it has for them, the clitoris is cut, in the name of female genital circumcision.
They say that it is because they do not want the girl to be “loose” in the future. “Loose” is used loosely to mean that her lips will find pleasures grabbing a penis. They would rather have a girl who does not know the pleasures of her clitoris. “Loose” is translated as self-aware and opinionated. Many believe this comes with sex—as soon as the girl starts eating what her mother eats, just like the forbidden fruit—she comes to a new discovery. “They” here means “the cutters” or the keepers of that tradition—many of them women. They would sit on the altar of fear of an unknown future and play god over the present. The girl, a sacrifice; her blood, her clitoris, food for insatiate gods.
Questions on my mind: where is the severed clitoris thrown? Does it shiver in pain, throbbing like a headless chicken? Does it shudder in “memory” of pleasures that may never become? Does it cry, tears of blood, from the pain? Does it feel the pain of the body from which it is severed?
Men are also cut. Here is the difference. When a man is cut, it is a thing of pride—he has become a man. It is to make the penis look “better”, so that it can “strike goals”. When a girl is cut, it is to protect her from a certain pre-empted shame, doom even. Not only for her but her society. Her vagina, and its shame, is communal. This happens before she knows what it is, or what it is capable of.
These gods do not stop here. As she grows, they become the vagina police monitoring that she is not loose, in her dressing, speech or gait. The fear of being loose hovers over her life. She must be contained. Her potentials, reduced.
So, who is afraid of the “vagina”? Show your face. Give your reasons why the fear is so morbid it eats you up.
Pink. Buns. Puff-puff. Games. Trees.
“Bayo is a boy. Titi is a girl.” Boys and girls are taught in school as young as three to differentiate a boy from a girl. Teachers are usually silent on “vagina” and “penis”. Why? I wonder. Is it that there is some secrecy that hides in the folds of thighs that must not be known? At this age, even the female sexual organ is given funny names like “wee-wee bumbum”—the place where wee-wee, urine comes out from. A wrong description.
As the girl grows, she becomes aware that there is something between her legs, different from the thing between a boy’s leg. She finds out that by folding her thighs a certain way, its shape “feels” like the thing she washes down there. Silence continues.
So, who is afraid of the vagina? Raise a finger. Give reasons why it should not be called what it really is. No, it is neither too big, nor vulgar for a child to pronounce or spell.
“Do not tell anyone.” A sentence that heralds a world of mystery. The girl still unaware of her body, yet could be ravaged by boys her age, or men, her father’s age. The hollowness of this silence rings beyond childhood; many carry with them to their graves, sealed away forever. “Here lies a good woman.” She never spoke. An unwritten epitaph. Like her secrets. Like her.
So, who is afraid of the vagina? Hide not behind the mask of a complacent society. Let her speak. Let her spill. The secret touches. The heaves in dark corners. So that punishment can meet you at your doorstep before you set forth at dawn. So that your dawn can become dusk. Like you have made hers.
Cardigans. Boys. Cramps. Tampons. Pads. Deodorants. Virginity. Blood. Shame.
“You are now a woman.” That sentence places a burden on a young girl’s shoulder. It is surprising how a physiological experience is an automatic switch from “girl” to “woman”. It comes with responsibility and shame for many: a cardigan around the waist; baggy clothes to hide the extra flesh.
“If you let a man touch you, you will get pregnant.” That sentence, each word, a jacket of fear, aimed at protecting the girl, pushes many into wrong arms. That sentence, silent on many things but loaded with fear knocked perfectly somewhere between her spine and skull.
“You need to have sex, so that your menstrual pains will go.” Another half-truth easily thrown around.
Rather than educate the girl about her body, its powers, how to use it, many mothers cloak their girls’ swords in sheaths of half-truths. Dis(virginity) is not a life goal. Should not be. Neither is marriage, nor motherhood. Many women impact life, virgins or not, mothers or not. But how do you expect to hear “truth” from a mouth that does not know it? Many women only continue a familiar tradition.
Even ignorance has a price: Pregnancy. Abortion. Death. Early childbirth. Early marriage. Aborted dreams. Diverted future.
Knowledge frees, ignorance enslaves. For many girls who are ignorant of their “sexual powers” as soon as their bodies ignite them, they use it as they will. A purse, in transaction. A script, for grades. An easy route, a lazy one.
Condoms. Pills. Orgasms. Choices. Sex.
Girl, this bridge between your legs, can unite or destroy. It can have people grovelling at its feet, a servant to a master, for a chance to pass through. Or just to peep through its keyhole. Use the power wisely. Think through your choices.
Who is afraid of the vagina? Let me see your face. Do not hide behind the camera, to sex and shame. Do not hide behind the walls of social media to rape and mention. Come out, let the books record your face too.
These fear mongers know the power that the vagina holds. They also know that who(what)ever wields power can also be greatly shamed. What(who)ever wields a lot of power, yet is unaware of it, can be doubly greatly shamed. Forgive my reckless use of adverbs.
So, they rape. They rape because the society raised them to believe that “no” means “maybe”. They are raised to believe so much in themselves, that whatever they want, if they press hard enough, they will get. That same society has raised you not to have a voice. It is okay for him to kiss and tell but she is a whore when she m(gr)oans in (dis)pleasure. By speaking, you will be further silenced. Scream for justice, and you will be further denigrated, in search of the truth. That is why they do what they do.
Who is afraid of the vagina? Show yourself. Do not hide behind the heavy cloak of shame. Come out from behind the veil of fear. Do not hide behind the mask of ignorance.
Here is why. Ignorance about the vagina could be detrimental. If you are ever going to remove the veil, at least it is important to know yourself. Know your vagina. Do not be ashamed of it.
Knowledge. Good Health. Pride.
Knowledge of your body, and how it works, is important. It is your vagina, your body, not a community’s, not a man’s, yours. Own it.
Stand over a mirror. Look at it. There is no harm in looking.
Know it. Google. Research. Different kinds of discharge— pap white, egg yolk—at different times. Good. Healthy. Find out when it is not. Know the different kinds of Sexually Transmitted Infections; protect yourself with an armoury of contraceptives.
Notice something strange. See a gynaecologist.
A good one will not make you feel embarrassed about where you have been, what you have done, and with whom. A good one may direct you to the family health clinic for family planning options, if that is what you want. A good one will treat you for infections.
The knowledge will help you. Many women have reported being sexually assaulted by their doctors. You will know when the slim border between an assessment and an assault is being crossed. You will know when to get up from that bed and run.
Touch it. Feel it. Embrace it. The path through which humanity travels. You are more.
Peel off all the untruths. Start a journey in search of truth. Talk about it. Call it by its name. The word is not dirty, neither is the vagina.
If you do not know what your body is like, how do you know when it is invaded by an infection? If you do not know the vagina, how do you know what kind of blood trickles out: menstrual blood, lochia, or a symptom of a disease?
When is pain (ab) normal? Menstruation, endometriosis, fibroids, come with degrees of pain.
Knowledge of your body, not only makes you self-aware, it also fills you with pride. You know yourself, your choices. You know the reason you make certain choices. Do not hide behind your own choices to shame other women. Do not use your (dis)virginity as a web to trap others. Neither should you use motherhood as a hood on your dreams.
“It’s a girl.” That sentence should not be a sentence on your ambitions, dreams and life. As a mother, change the narrative. As a girl/woman, move beyond it. Move past you, past your fear of it. Past the cutters, the abusers, the shamers, the silencers, of your vagina.
De-stigmatising also lies in your hands, in your voice. Once free, unshackle, “unshame” another. Tell her: You are (not) your vagina. You are more. Be more. Be all there is in life. Vagina, or not.
So, who is (still) afraid of the vagina?
*Vagina is used loosely to embrace the female sexual reproductive organs, in some parts of the article.
– Temitayo Olofinlua is an award-winning essayist and editor who has completed assignments for Global Press Institute, Mania Magazine, Saraba Mag and Facebook, to mention a few. Her work has been featured in various publications, online and in print.
Some of her writing awards include Finalist, African Story Challenge, Technology and Business Cycle (2014); Second Prize, Peter Drucker Challenge (2014); and First Prize Winner, NEPAD Essay Contest (2013).
She lives in Ibadan where she is also a PhD student at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.